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Portable Passions, Part 1: Nintendo DS

Last week, Sony released its long-awaited PlayStation Portable (PSP) in North America, establishing a new front in the battle between portable video game systems. I'll be looking at the PSP next week, after I've had some time to get to know its various strengths and weaknesses. But this week, I'd like to examine the Nintendo DS (for "dual screen"), which I've been using for a few months. The Nintendo DS is the successor to Nintendo's ultra-popular GameBoy line, and it's the PSP's chief competitor. Let's see how it stacks up.

The Nitty Gritty
The Nintendo DS features a handheld PC-like "clamshell" design that reveals two color LCD screens, one on each half of the unit's interior, along with the requisite game pads and other switches. Designed to be innovative, the Nintendo DS's split screen is, in my opinion, gimmicky.

The top screen operates like a normal GameBoy screen does, supplying the game display as you'd expect (and because the unit is backward-compatible with GameBoy Advance titles, this is the only screen that's activated when you use such a game). The bottom screen ... ugh. Depending on the title, you use the bottom screen in different ways. So far, most games use the screen as an optional controller, which is difficult to describe. Essentially, you use the included stylus (which resembles a PDA stylus but is childishly short) to scrape the bottom screen to perform onscreen actions. In the bundled Metroid demo game, this action is similar to that of using a mouse in a first-person shooter on the PC. But most games let you tap the bottom screen or use the normal game pad, and that's universally what I've chosen to do. Like the silly robot add-on that Nintendo first foisted on users with its NES system two decades ago, I expect that second-screen usage will drop off significantly over time with the Nintendo DS.

From a fit-and-finish standpoint, the Nintendo DS is mediocre. The plastic looks and feels cheap. Embarrassingly, a small girl confronted me recently in an airport while I was using the device, and she wanted to know if I was borrowing my child's game. (I told her I was.) And the new Nintendo DS game cards are much too small, as if they were designed specifically to be lost. I was also disappointed by the Nintendo DS's graphics, which had a lower resolution than I expected.

On the plus side, battery life is excellent. And although the stylus is too short for adults, as previously mentioned, the unit's width makes it easier to hold the Nintendo DS than is possible with the smallish and square GameBoy Advance. So, overall, the Nintendo DS is still better than its predecessor.

What really sets apart any game machine, of course, is the games. And it's here that Nintendo has stumbled most egregiously. The Nintendo DS launched with a pathetically small selection of titles, and the situation hasn't improved much since then. The two titles I most eagerly anticipated—Super Mario 64 DS and Madden NFL 2005—are both decent replications of the original console games but are graphically unimpressive. And Spider-Man 2 is a lackluster sideways scroller, which is too bad: This is exactly the type of game the Nintendo DS should handle well. One positive is that the Nintendo DS does play the huge library of GameBoy Advance games. (Many Nintendo DS customers probably upgraded from a GameBoy Advance.)

My biggest gripe is that Nintendo seems to be going after the kiddie crowd too much with the Nintendo DS. The biggest market for this kind of device is young adults with disposable incomes, and the Nintendo DS and its selection of games are simply too childish for most adults. Nintendo would be well advised to study products such as the Apple iPod and various popular cell phones while working on its Nintendo DS follow-up. Design matters.

Stay Tuned
Tune in next week, when I'll take a look at the Sony PSP, which seeks to steal the portable gaming crown from Nintendo while providing users with an amazing array of digital-media technologies, including music and movie playback.

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